The University of Missouri will suspend classes for the remainder of the week and transition to online coursework next week due to the growing coronavirus pandemic.


The announcement Wednesday afternoon came after about 20 students and faculty members were asked to isolate themselves after attending a journalism conference also attended by someone who has tested presumptively positive for COVID-19.


The suspension and change to online work comes as the annual spring break approaches. The university hopes to resume on-campus classes March 30, when students return, spokesman Christian Basi said.


The suspension went into effect at 5 p.m. Wednesday and will continue through Sunday afternoon.


"The university remains open, and faculty and staff are expected to report to work," Chancellor Alexander Cartwright wrote in a message sent to faculty, staff and students.


The suspension and other steps to prevent infection are being taken "out of an abundance of caution," Cartwright wrote.


There are no known cases of coronavirus on campus or in Columbia. So far, only one person in Missouri has tested positive for the virus.


The other steps include suspending all university-related non-essential international and domestic travel until April 12, including previously approved travel, Cartwright wrote. All "non-essential" university events are also canceled through March 29.


The decision came after students and faculty who attended the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference in New Orleans were asked to self-isolate.


The coronavirus that emerged late last year in Wuhan, China, has circled the globe, creating major disruptions for industry, travel and financial markets.


The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the spread to be a pandemic. More than 120,000 people have been infected worldwide and almost 4,400 have died.


The virus has infected more than 1,000 people in the U.S. and killed at least 33, with cases reported in 40 states, according to the Associated Press reports.


The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services activated a statewide public hotline on Wednesday for citizens or providers needing guidance regarding the coronavirus. The number is 877-435-8411. It is being operated by medical professionals 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


MU Health Care announced Tuesday it is offering $10 video visits for patients who want to be seen virtually or screened for COVID-19. The screenings allow patients to interact with providers from their homes, ensuring they don’t expose others to their illness.


Faculty and students who attended the New Orleans conference were directed to stay home. The Columbia Missourian newsroom was shut down Wednesday morning for disinfecting. Student reporters and faculty were working remotely.


The university is working to track the movements of students between the time they arrived home and they were asked to isolate themselves, Basi said.


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Clare Roth, an MU journalism student who does freelance work for the Tribune, is one of the students in isolation.


She said those who had any close contact with the person at the conference who tested presumptive positive would be notified, and she hasn’t been notified.


"I just don’t want to spread it to anybody and I hope that I don’t have it," Roth said. "I don’t like the fact that I can’t do things, but it’s better than spreading the virus."


The local impact of the coronavirus continues to grow even without any cases of the fatal disease in Columbia. So far, only one case of COVID-19 has been reported in Missouri.


In a briefing with reporters Wednesday afternoon, university spokesman Christian Basi said nothing in his career has matched this threat, despite a mumps outbreak and other diseases that have struck the campus.


"This by far had probably created the most planning and has the potential to be the most disruptive of any of the event over the past two-and-a-half decades," Basi said.


Nothing weather-related or man-made has created such an upheaval, he said.


"I’ve never been in a situation where we’ve talked about the university operations being disrupted for months," he said.


The journalism students and faculty members who attended the conference all are cooperating fully, Basi said. The duration of their isolation hasn’t been determined. Asking them to be tested for coronavirus has been considered.


The university has been planning for a possible switch to remote instruction, Basi said during the briefing.


"What we’ve been doing is getting resources to faculty members about working remotely," Basi said. "We’ve been asking professors to start preparing should we throw the switch."


Everything possible is being done to reduce any problems for students, he said.


"The goal is we want their academic progress to continue," he said. "We want their financial burden to be zero."


Other impacts are touching political and social events.


Democratic state Senate candidate Judy Baker of Columbia has canceled all her campaign events.


"In light of the growing COVID-19 epidemic, it would be irresponsible of us to hold social gatherings," Baker wrote in an email to supporters.


In Rolla, the Missouri University of Science and Technology announced it was canceling all university-sponsored events associated with the annual St. Pat’s Celebration and the university’s Teaching and Learning Technology Conference.


The university reported that the Phelps County Health Department reported Wednesday that a patient is being isolated for COVID-19 testing.


"Canceling events associated with one of our university’s most celebrated traditions was a very difficult decision," Chancellor Mo Dehghani said in a news release.


The cancellations were made out of caution, he said.


Information about the potential exposure among Mizzou journalism students and faculty began circulating Tuesday night.


"People were talking about it on Twitter," Roth said.


Around 20 MU students and faculty members attended the conference, she said.


A statement about the presumptive positive conference attendee had been posted on the Investigative Reporters and Editors website. The website crashed, but Roth said she received screenshots of the statement.


The statement read that the conference attendee had mild symptoms and was expected to recover. The attendee was staying in isolation for 14 days, it read.


Not long after that, the MU conference attendees received an email from journalism professor Michael Jenner.


It asks those who attended the conference to self-isolate until directed otherwise "out of an abundance of caution."


Jenner wrote that students would not be penalized for missing class.


Roth said she has been told if she were to have a cough, fever, or shortness of breath, she’s is to call the local health department.


She attended a class via online video conference Wednesday morning, she said.


The Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human services and experts at MU Health Care were notified of the situation, the university statement reads.


rmckinney@columbiatribune.com


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